The Stare and Vonlenska – Bringing it Home.

Our last article was a short story by Dr Paul Jacob. The Stare and Vonlenska told the story of a young deaf girl who was mainstreamed into a normal school. The story described situations that many of us who are deaf and who were educated in mainstream settings are familiar with. Indeed for many deaf people the story stirred memories best left in the dark archives of the mind. It was, to say the least, confronting.

The scenarios that were highlighted in the story are not unique for deaf people. Society can be, and often is, a very cruel place. Those who are “different” often find themselves the centre of unwanted attention. The gay person, the physically disabled, the fat, the thin, the short the not so bright – people that fall into any one of these categories will understand the turmoil and frustrations that were highlighted in Dr Jacob’s story.

I was no different from many that read the story. It brought back some very uncomfortable memories. I clearly remember the change of attitudes from my friends when I lost my hearing between the ages of 8 and 10. I was good at sport and was always among the first picked when teams were selected. Suddenly I found myself being picked last. As a young child this change in attitudes was puzzling to me.

From being part of the crowd I suddenly found myself on the outer. Where usually I would be in the group discussing the merits of the Kung Fu of David Caradine over Bruce Lee or the strength West Ham  over Luton Town I suddenly found myself isolated. Friends that used to greet me suddenly avoided me. It hurt and there was no one who could explain to me why all this was happening. I had to struggle and deal with it myself. It took many years, well into adulthood, to understand what had happened.

My most harrowing memory was going out to the front of the school during assembly to announce my teams soccer results. I had scored four goals, I was looking forward to telling everyone. But unbeknown to me, because I could no longer hear my voice, I was developing a Deaf accent and had trouble controlling the volume of my voice.  I announced the results and looked out at the assembled children and teachers. Teachers were looking at their feet and children were giggling into their hands. What had been so funny, I had no idea. It was not until many years later that I realised that I sounded “funny”. There was no support for me at the time to explain what was happening with my speech. No one explained to me that going deaf meant that the quality of your voice drops. No, these things only became clear many years later.

I remember walking home. I was often teased. Kids loved to demonstrate to others what a lousy lip-reader I was. The thing is, I wasn’t. I was a very good lip-reader. Friends would come up to me at the school crossing and mouth insults; “ARE YOU A POOFTER” they would silently mouth. “DO YOU SMELL.”  I would always answer yes just to see how stupid that they thought that I was. Suffice to say I found out very quickly who my friends were.

Adolescence was excruciating. There is an old joke about little Tommy who thought a FUCK was something that his father did when he hit his thumb with a hammer. I understand this joke in ways that only deaf people can. One of the curses of deafness, particularly for deaf kids, is that they miss banter and overhearing. Through banter and overhearing kids learn many things. They learn social skills, they learn about sex, about acceptable behaviours. All the time they are hearing things. They hear their families discussing social issues over dinner time conversation. On the radio, in the background, they will hear people discussing when alcohol should be introduced to kids. The dinner time conversation may suddenly swing to what has been heard, “What do you reckon Pat, should kids start to drink at 16?” All the time this highway of information is in action, expanding ones mind, contributing to their social learning and maturity. Yet for the deaf kids, particularly those born into hearing families, very little of this highway of information is accessible.

What this can mean for the young deaf person is that their maturity and social learning lags behind. Their behaviour can be seen as “less than age appropriate”. I was no exception. I clearly recall having a conversation with Karl about Robyn, who I fancied. I used to walk my dog past her house and announce my arrival by blowing loudly into a Whistle Pop that I had purchased at the Deli. Sometimes she would invite me in for a coke or sandwich. Then suddenly one day she stopped wanting to know me. I asked Karl if he knew why. “She thinks you wanna FUCK her.” answered Karl. I was confused, I had no idea what he meant. Truthfully at that point in my life, 13 years old, FUCK was just a swear word. That it was actually a word that described the act of sex was something I just did not know. Naive? Perhaps, but it is a prime example of SOCIAL INFORMATION that deaf kids can miss out on from the simple act of bantering and overhearing.

And this is the real disability of deafness. Deafness is a social disability. The problem is that professionals, by and large, think it will be fixed by improving hearing. For those with severe to profound hearing losses it doesn’t. Even cochlear implants do not fix the problem. Cochlear implants and high tech hearing aids can help people HEAR better but still they do not hear enough. In my work with deaf kids with even mild to moderate hearing losses it is surprising at just how much information that even they miss. The obsession with hearing and the little emphasis on preparing deaf kids for the SOCIAL and PRACTICAL issues of life means that many are DAMAGED goods when they leave school. Under-prepared and totally lacking in DEAF LIFE SKILLS to deal with life.

It is not for nothing that incidence of poor mental health in deaf people is higher than for the general populace. Research abounds to show this. In Holland research shows that 41% of deaf kids have emotional and mental health issues. This is 2.6% higher than hearing kids. (Mental Health Problems of Deaf Dutch Children As Indicated by Parents’ Responses to the Child Behavior Checklist American Annals of the Deaf – Volume 148, Number 5, Spring 2004, pp. 390-395) In 1994 Hindley etal found that 60.9% of deaf kids in mainstream schools exhibited social and emotional mental health issues. Oliver Sacks in his book, Seeing Voices, described deafness as a “preventable form of mental retardation.”  What he means is that our lack of focus on the social and mental development of deaf kids and our obsession with “HEARING” restricts the mental and social development of deaf kids.

We have known this information for years yet still our society keeps making the same mistakes. Nowhere in Australia are there services that focus on the SOCIAL and MENTAL development of deaf kids. Nowhere are their programs that explain to deaf kids that their voice sounds funny and how to deal with it and explain why. Instead we patronisingly tell them “You speak so well!” OK so I speak well, but I sound a little odd to the mainstream don’t I? In school deaf kids are socially isolated but “coping wonderfully” Just how well would they cope if they had access to social interaction and social learning. And just what is “COPING”. Passing? Excelling? or as I found one 17 year old deaf aboriginal girl in Alice Springs in 2003, sitting at the back, colouring in pictures because no one at the school knew how to communicate with her.

Who teaches deaf kids how to deal with difficult communication situations at work or in life. Who teaches them about using interpreters? Who teaches them about using the Internet to access the phone or about captioned telephony? Who provides them with the skills and assertiveness to set up situations so that their communication is enhanced. In short who is skilling them to be DEAF ADULTS so that they are ready for adulthood? In most cases the answer is NO ONE! It is done at the school of hard knocks.

Newly elected President of the World Federation of the Deaf, Colin Allen, spoke at the recent Deaf Australia Conference in Hobart. He publicly stated that Australia’s Education System for the Deaf is a disgrace. Deaf kids are not going to develop confidence and skills from the visiting teacher that visits three times a year. They are not going to learn from the mainstream teacher, well meaning, but lacking in any sort of understanding. What of our support organisations? Which of them are offering social skills programs for deaf kids and their parents? How many of them are providing families with skills and information to enhance banter and overhearing in the family situation? How many deaf kids are provided with work experience programs to develop DEAF LIFE SKILLS in work?  HOW  MANY REAL PROGRAMS EXIST TO ADDRESS THE SOCIAL AND EMOTIONAL NEEDS OF DEAF KIDS?  Professionals in the field will deny it, but the answer to these questions is NEXT TO NOTHING. How much longer are we going to allow this situation to exist?

The time for change is now!


3 thoughts on “The Stare and Vonlenska – Bringing it Home.

  1. I can truly relate, this article has a theme that many of us endure daily, experienced across the lifespan as well as it continues to demonstrated that things have not changed. that the mentality of people in society has become less respectful and more money orientated. that the Deaf people to better oneself is by way of being subjected to and enduring ridicule and dis-respect from people who are none the wiser to their own self-image but pass judgement on others. I recently spoke to a family of children who are all profoundly deaf. their parents at a loss to know how to support them where its clear that their frustration in communication has them losing a gripe on parenting. That the limited services accessible to them and the cost involved for “deaf tutors or mentors” is paying peanuts so many opt out of doing that work, leaving us a very nasty cycle. As Colin Allen spoke at the Deaf Australia Conference ( in which I attended) it was clearly obvious that its the “Community ” that has to raise the Deaf child as others are not equipped or even passionate to develop their identity. I believe in self-determination, and that leadership and development of self image is a key factor for a strong identity as a Deaf person or as a person in general who just happens to be Deaf. what is needed is the commitment from the community not to pass judgement, not to fob off to services and mainstream, not to wait for funding, stop blaming others and show initiative and lobby for the rights for these children to have their basic civil rights met. they do not have a vote or a voice but we as adults do..

  2. Agreed and related wholeheartedly to the article, deafness is such a socially crippling disability and I always wanted to be taught these skills that were and still are such a mystery to me. Are you aware of an australian program “hear for you” which helps to address these issues for deaf oral teens. It’s a big step in the right direction.

  3. Great article Gary, this echoes my experience growing up right down to the last letter. Could not have put it better myself!!
    I now work as a SSO at a high school, this exact same thing is unfolding right in front of my own eyes, much to my absolute horror and frustration, and we live in the 21st Century. I try to do what I can to make it better for the students, discussing deaf stuff with them, quite often they are interested, but the reality is they all come from hearing families and they’re often pooh hooed and shot down. Not intentionally of course, just lack of understanding and education of course.
    Congratulations on the article, a very worthy read!

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